Letting Go of Control

I’ve spent most of my life trying to control things. When I was younger I tried to control the external world around me. I needed situations to work out in a way that benefited me. I needed to be comfortable. I needed people to like me. Unfortunately, this need for control ended up causing me more stress than anything. The older I got, the more I realized I had very little control over the world around me.

When I got into self-improvement when I was 20, it was like a beacon of hope for me. Most of the content I read taught that our thoughts are what ultimately determine our happiness. While we may not be able to control our external circumstances, we could certainly control how we perceive them. In other words, we should focus on controlling our thoughts instead of trying to control the world around us.

I bought into this idea pretty quickly, seeing it as a way to escape the anguish I had experienced for most of my adolescent life, and I’ve spent the majority of the last four years trying to change how I perceive the world. The list of techniques I’ve tested out includes meditation, positivity challenges, repeating affirmations, and even a bit of delusional self-confidence at times. And I’d be lying if I said many of those things haven’t had a positive effect on my life; I’m happier than ever before, and every day I feel less and less like a victim of my external circumstances.

However, the knowledge that my thinking is what determines my happiness has been both a gift and a burden. What do I mean by burden? I guess the best way of putting it is that I now feel a ton of pressure to fix all of my negative thinking.

For example, let’s say a situation at work puts me in a crappy mood. Maybe my students are being disrespectful during class or a teacher forgets to tell me about a schedule change. Back in the day, I would put all of the blame for my crappy mood on the situation. But I know better now. It’s my thinking about the situation that is the real problem, so it’s now my responsibility to change my thinking if I want to be happy.

So maybe I try to reframe it in a positive way. “The challenge I’m facing right now is only going to make me stronger.” Or maybe I try to practice gratitude and focus on all of the things I have to be grateful for at that moment. At this point, I have an endless list of strategies in my head that I can cycle through to try and change my thoughts about the situation.

That sounds great, right? With all of those mental resources at my disposal, getting back to a positive emotional state should be nice and easy. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Yes, those strategies can be effective at times, but there are many times when no amount of mental yoga can change how I feel about a situation. And it’s in those moments that I really start to suffer.

Not only do I feel bad because of the negative emotions I’m experiencing, I start to feel like a failure because I know it’s my responsibility to choose my thoughts, and obviously I’m choosing the wrong ones. I essentially add guilt on top of an already crappy situation, not to mention all of the mental traffic I’m experiencing from the different strategies I’m using to change to my thoughts.

What’s the solution?

Last week, I read a book called “Clarity” by Jamie Smart. It had two very interesting assertions. The first is that all of our feelings are not caused by anything external, but by our thinking. Basically, we don’t experience situations, we experience our thoughts about situations. Okay, maybe that’s not that interesting; it’s pretty much what I’ve been talking about this whole post.

The second assertion, however, threw me for a loop. It’s the idea that happiness (or “clarity” as it’s called in the book) is our natural state, not something we have to actively work towards. My initial reaction to that was along the lines of, “Yeah right! If happiness is our natural state, then why am I not always in a good mood?”

The author goes on to explain that we all have a kind of psychological “immune system.” Just like our actual immune system heals us after we’ve been injured, our psychological immune system brings us back to our natural state of peace and happiness after we’ve confused our negative thinking for reality.

He uses babies as an example. Babies, like adults, have their emotional ups and downs. Their ups and downs may even be more extreme than most adults because they haven’t learned how to suppress their natural emotional reactions.

When they’re hungry, tired, or just scared, they cry and scream. Despite these emotional episodes, however, they always return to a calm and happy state. Smart claims that this inevitable recovery is our psychological immune system at work. It doesn’t necessarily stop us from experiencing negative thoughts (and thus negative emotions), but it always brings us back to center.

If that’s the case though, then why do so many of us spend the majority of our time unhappy? The answer is simple and paradoxical: we struggle so much to be happy because of our attempts to think (or achieve) our way to happiness. By trying to force ourselves to be happy we actually interfere with our psychological immune system, making it more difficult to return to our natural happy state.

How do we stop doing this?

Honestly, that’s where things get a little unclear in the book. Smart basically states that it’s less about knowing what to do, and more about understanding how our minds work. Once we have that understanding, we can intuitively stop interfering with the mind’s attempt to bring us back to clarity.

That doesn’t sound very concrete though, so here’s how I’ve put it into practice so far:

  1. As soon as I become aware of negative emotions like stress or anxiety, I remind myself that I’m only experiencing my thoughts and that my actual circumstances are not a threat to my happiness.
  2. From there, instead of trying to “fix” my thoughts like I normally would, I remind myself that feeling happy and at peace is my natural state, and I don’t have to do anything to get there. I just have to get out of my own way.
  3. This is where things get kind of weird. Reminding myself that I’m only experiencing my thinking and that happiness is my natural state doesn’t automatically put me in a better mood. But I’ve found that, if I just sit with my thoughts, observing them but not engaging with them or trying to change them, they usually subside after a few moments. However, as soon as I start trying to change my thoughts in order to feel better, things usually get worse. I guess it’s like that old Carl Jung quote, “What you resist persists.”

If I had to sum this whole thing up, I would describe it as letting go of the need to control our thoughts. When negative thoughts enter into our minds, we don’t have to try and change them or get rid of them. Instead, we can just become aware of them and leave them alone, trusting that they will eventually subside and we will return to our natural state of happiness.

It probably sounds a little bit crazy, but that has been my experience during this past week. To be honest, I’m still trying to sort it all out in my head, because if being happy is as simple as just allowing my mind to “reset” without trying to fix it, then that would make almost all of the self-improvement stuff I’ve learned in the past four years obsolete. It also opens up a whole Pandora’s box of questions around purpose and living a fulfilling life. Saying there’s a lot for me to explore around this topic is a massive understatement…

~

To end this post, I’d like to share a Lao Tzu quote that I think meshes really well with the ideas discussed in this post. It’s a quote I’ve seen many times before, but it makes much more sense to me after reading “Clarity.”

“Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Words of Wisdom

Photo: Guadalquivir River in Seville, Spain

“Just flow…”

That phrase has been stuck in my head for the past month or so. It all started on a Friday night when I began bombarding my roommate with questions about our plans for the evening. I wanted to know what we were doing, where we were going, and who were going with. I needed to have a plan. However, in the midst of my stream of questions, he turned to me and said those magic words.

While they may have been little more than an attempt to stop my inquiries,  his words of wisdom really struck a chord with me. They made me think of two of my favorite books, “The Power of Now” and the “Tao Te Ching.” Both books talk about the importance of accepting the present moment and not dwelling on the past or future. In other words, they talk about “going with the flow.”

Although this wasn’t a new concept for me, there was something about the way my roommate said, “just flow” that made the idea suddenly click in my head. In the days that followed, I started noticing how often I did the complete opposite. I was in an almost constant state of resistance, both mentally and physically. My shoulders were usually tight, my breathing shallow, and my mind full of anxiety and discontent. Rarely was I able to just relax and enjoy the moment.

So I began reminding myself of my roommate’s words. Whenever I felt tightness in my shoulders or noticed resistance in my thoughts, I’d take a deep breath and say to myself, “just flow.” From there I’d do my best to stay connected with my breath and fully relax into the present moment.

The effects were pretty small at first – I’d relax for just a moment and then find myself caught up in resistance once again – but I stuck with it. Well, I think it’s better to say that it stuck with me. The whole idea of “going with the flow” sounded more and more appealing each day. I realized that it’s something I want to truly embody, and the last month has mainly consisted of me exploring different ways of doing that. The most notable have been guided meditations, yoga, tai chi, and reading up on philosophies like Taoism.

I’m not really sure where this newfound interest in going with the flow will take me, but I think it will be somewhere good. At the very least it will encourage me to stay mindful of when I’m resisting the present moment, and that mindfulness is a tremendous source of peace in itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transitions

“There is nothing permanent except change.” 

– Heraclitus

Tomorrow I’ll be moving from sunny Long Beach, California to even sunnier Sevilla, Spain. As my departure date nears, the most common question I hear is, “Are you excited?”

I tend to view this almost as a rhetorical question. Everyone expects the obvious answer: a resounding “Yes!” How could I not be? The opportunity to live in a foreign country for nine months (for the second time) is something only a fool wouldn’t be excited about.

So I always answer yes. And it’s technically true. I’m very excited to move to Spain. But every time I answer, it occurs to me that the truth is more complex than most people would care to hear.

Emotions on Top of  Emotions

Embarking on any new journey usually involves a hodgepodge of different emotions. There’s the obvious excitement mentioned above, the fear and anxiety that come from heading into the unknown, and the sadness over leaving everyone and everything I know behind.

This emotional cocktail is something I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. I had my first taste of it right before my freshman year of college, when I was getting ready to move across the country to North Carolina. This was the first time I’d be leaving the safe confines of my home for more than a week and I really didn’t know what to expect.

Sunny Long Beach
Sunny Long Beach

To make things more complicated, I had just started dating the girl who would be my girlfriend for the next two and half years. As anyone who has been in a long-distance relationship can attest to, all this did was amplify my emotions. During those two years, every transition to and from school felt like a momentous event, each one more emotionally draining than the last.

Oh how things have changed since then…

Now, as I prepare to make my second move to a foreign country, my emotional response is much more subtle than it was during those college years. Excitement has become quiet anticipation, fear has subsided into low-level anxiety, and sadness has transformed into a mild melancholy.

A Life in Flux

This change is the result of a couple things. At the most basic level, big transitions just start to become routine. I’ve gotten so used to (over)packing my suitcase that it hardly registers as a big deal any more. Don’t get me wrong though. This doesn’t mean I no longer get excited about traveling. I live for it. I’d go so far as to say it’s my oxygen. But just like oxygen, I usually don’t consider its importance until it’s gone.

On a deeper level, I think this emotional shift has a lot to do with my growing interest in different eastern religions and philosophies.

I’ve mentioned in a couple of posts that one of my favorite books is the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Taoist text written by Lao Tzu. The major theme of the Tao Te Ching is learning to go with the flow of nature, which is constantly changing. By doing this, we can achieve a constant inner peace.

cropped-background-seville1.jpg
Sunnier Sevilla (well maybe not in this picture)

While I’m no perfect practitioner of “going with the flow,” I do believe this idea has rubbed off on me in the past couple of years. In any case, I’ve come to appreciate the ever-changing nature of life.

It’s easy to look back on parts of our lives and see them as fixed stages: we were kids, then teenagers, and then young adults. This perspective is only enhanced by the way our school systems work. For years at a time we are stuck in one place, doing the same routines over and over. Then, when that arbitrary time limit is reached, we evolve like Pokemon and advance to the next stage. And once again we’re stuck there for another set period of time.

Yet if we were to look closely at these seemingly distinct stages, we would see that everything was in constant flux. We were always growing, always changing. Our physical features were constantly evolving. New ideas were forming in our heads. We were experiencing an array of different emotions. The degree of these changes might have varied, but they were always happening. They still are.

Our lives are constantly in transition.

So as my move to Spain approaches, instead of being overwhelmed by excitement or fear – both of which I still experience – I feel a quiet contentment knowing that this is just one of many transitions in my life. To fear it would be foolish; but to believe this change will finally bring me lasting happiness would be just as absurd.

As dispassionate as that may sound, it’s only through this attitude of detachment that I am able to fully appreciate the nuances this journey of life has to offer.

Resistance is Futile

Happiness can only exist in acceptance.” 

– George Orwell

I get angry a lot. Well…I wouldn’t call it anger exactly. It’s more like a consistent, low-level irritation. I feel it while driving, while doing customer service at work, while waiting in line for pretty much anything. Sometimes this irritation grows into real anger. Other times it just kind of stays there, humming beneath the surface, waiting for something to tip it over the edge.

I recently wrote a post on mindfulness meditation and how the only thing it requires is that you become aware of the present moment. I’ve started to put this awareness into practice, especially during times when I’m feeling irritated. Part of what that entails is looking closely at what’s causing my irritation in the first place. Initially, the answer seems obvious. It’s the slow driver in front of me or the rude customer I’m dealing with. But when I look deeper at these situations, I can start to see that it isn’t the driver or the customer that’s causing my irritation, it’s my resistance to the present moment.

Resistance: The Root of Our Suffering

Life can be full of unpleasantness. This is an undeniable fact. Every day we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, dealing with events and emotions that we would rather not experience. Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to make those already unpleasant circumstances even worse by adding resistance into the mix.

Resistance is simply the refusal to accept what is happening in the present moment. Some have argued that it is the root of all our suffering. I first heard that assertion when I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. The book is about becoming present to the moment, and it goes into detail about the different ways that we resist the present. Feelings like anger, boredom, anxiety; these are all symptoms of our resistance to what IS.

This means that resistance is so entrenched in our daily lives that we usually don’t even realize we’re resisting.

Let’s take a very common example: waking up in the morning. If you’re anything like me, getting up (especially on weekdays) is rarely a pleasant experience. As soon as the alarm goes off you’re faced with uncomfortable feelings like disorientation and sleepiness. They can make actually getting out of bed a terrible challenge.

But what is it about those feelings that makes them intrinsically bad? Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What this really means is that it’s purely our judgment of something that determines its effect on us, and resistance pretty much always takes the form of a negative judgement. You feel tired and you tell yourself, “This is bad.” You’re stuck in traffic and you think, “Why do there have to be so many damn cars on the road?” From there, emotional and physical forms of resistance start to set in. You clench your jaw and fists. Your breathing becomes more constricted. Before you know it, you’re lost in a tailspin of negativity.

Eckhart Tolle wasn’t the first person to realize how much of our pain is actually caused by resistance. This lesson can be seen in religions and philosophies such as Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity. It’s based on the wisdom that life is constantly changing and mostly outside of our control.

Lao Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who created the Tao Te Ching, wrote, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” If we can really understand that life will change with or without our consent, this “letting things flow” becomes a lot easier.

The Buddha said, “The root of suffering is attachment.” While he used attachment instead of resistance, his message was the same. Resistance is really a form of attachment: an attachment to how we want things to be. We cling to a fictional image of how we think the world should be, and when reality conflicts with that image we suffer.

The irony of resistance is that it’s, at best, ineffective at creating positive changes. Let’s go back to the example of waking up feeling tired and disoriented. In that situation, no amount of internal resisting – and this includes complaining as well – will make those feelings go away. All resistance will do is add some serious grumpiness on top of them.

This applies to any situation that you might judge as negative, like doing an overnight shift at work or being stuck in traffic. While the natural tendency is to get frustrated, no amount of complaining to coworkers or cursing at other drivers will change your situation. But it might very well lead to high blood pressure or a car accident.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “what you resists, persists.”  I’ve found this to be especially true when it comes to uncomfortable emotions. When dealing with feelings like anger, what usually causes me the most suffering isn’t the anger itself, but my resistance to the fact that I’m angry. In my head I judge being angry as “negative,” and I want it to stop. But this just feeds the anger, making it last much longer than it probably would have had I not resisted it.

In this sense resistance is like adding fuel to a fire. It takes whatever you’re feeling and amplifies it.

Acceptance

The opposite of resistance is acceptance. That seems like a simple concept, but practicing it is truly a challenge. There are a couple of reasons so many of us might struggle with acceptance.

Firstly, our egos don’t want us to accept things the way they are. Ego is a term with a lot of different interpretations, but for the sake of this post I’m going to define it as the thinking mind. It’s the voice in our heads that judges each moment. It’s always stuck in the past or the future, never in the present moment. Any resistance we feel is because of our identification with our egos (minds).

Eckhart Tolle explains it best:

“The pain that you create now is always some form of non acceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity. The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind.”

The second reason is a little less esoteric. It seems as though the idea of acceptance may have negative connotations, especially in American society. We live in a culture that encourages blasting through obstacles in order to get the results we want. We are a society of problem solvers. So when a situation or feeling that isn’t agreeable comes our way, the natural instinct is to fight back. Unfortunately, this usually creates more problems than solutions.

What it really comes down to is a misinterpretation of what acceptance means.

Accepting the present moment means understanding that you can’t control what’s already in front of you. Whether you’re stuck in traffic or just simply in a bad mood, those are your current circumstances and mentally resisting them won’t change that.

However, accepting doesn’t mean you can’t respond to what’s in front of you or take action to improve things. But taking action is not synonymous with resistance. In fact, the only way to take truly effective action is to fully accept your circumstances. Any kind of resistance you have, such as anger or complaining mentally, will only hinder your attempts at taking action. It’s like the Serenity Prayer says, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

So let’s say you’re faced with a rude customer at work. No matter how much you resist the situation internally (by getting angry or impatient), it won’t change the fact that that customer is in front of you. Instead, that resistance might lead you to start arguing with the customer, making the situation even worse. At the very least it puts you in a worse mood than before. But if you simply accept the present moment, you can then put all your focus on changing the situation in a positive way.

Action Steps

This is all easy to talk about, but much harder to put into action. So here are a couple reminders that help me whenever I notice myself resisting the present moment.

1) Awareness is Key

“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.”                                      – Nathaniel Branden

Before we can begin to solve any kind of problem in our lives, we must become aware the problem even exists. This is especially true when it comes to learning how to accept the present moment. It’s so easy to fall into negative moods and thought patterns without even realizing it. And for many of us, that negativity is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that it feels normal.

Getting out of this negative cycle requires us to start paying attention to our thoughts and emotions. Practices like mindfulness meditation (check out my last post) are extremely helpful for this. But I’ve found that, just by setting the intention each day to observe my mind, my awareness increases tenfold.

Of course, being aware of something doesn’t mean it will automatically change. But that awareness creates the internal space that will allow us to eventually make changes.

Whenever you find yourself in a bad mood, take a mental step back and look at what exactly you’re feeling and why. There’s no need to judge or try to change anything.  If you can manage to just be aware of what’s going on inside you, it will make a world of difference in your life.

2) “What You Resist, Persists”

I’ve found that keeping this old adage in mind keeps me from getting consumed by resistance. I see it almost as leveraging resistance against itself. I know that the best way to get something to change is to first accept it. It comes down to choosing the long term over the short term. By accepting an unpleasant situation in the short term, it is more likely to change in the long term.

One situation where I’ve applied this quite a bit is when I’m having trouble falling asleep. My instinctual reaction is to get increasingly frustrated as the night goes on. This usually only results in me not being able to fall asleep for even longer. But when I remind myself that what I resist will only persist, I can make the conscious decision to just relax into the moment.

Instead of mentally bemoaning my inability to fall asleep, I embrace it fully. I say to myself, “Okay, I guess I’m not falling asleep tonight.” Then maybe I close my eyes and focus on my breath for a while. Or I use that time to review my day or mull over a problem I’ve been dealing with. More often than not, I’ll end up falling asleep shortly after.

Of course, sometimes I don’t. In that case the same advice still applies. I constantly remind myself that resisting will only add emotional turmoil on top of whatever physical pain I might feel from lack of sleep.

Whenever you become aware of your inner resistance to something, just remind yourself that resisting it will only make things worse.

 

I’ll leave you with this quote from Eckhart Tolle. I think it perfectly sums up the futility of resistance and the benefits that come from acceptance.

“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”